It was me and the bird. Me, the bird, and a box. Me, the bird, a box, and some wadded up paper towels.
I was never good at this sort of thing. Before my parents split up, we buried my cat Percy out back, covered her grave with half-bricks and planted pussywillows over it. She was in a brown bag; I kept her collar. I still have it. Percy, you weren’t easy to bury. I still can’t imagine you gone. You’re still asleep on top of the china cabinet in the dining-room, beside the table I knocked my head on. I still have that dent on my skull and I still have you.
Dead animals bring me a certain sad peace. I can hold a bird I wouldn’t normally be able to touch. They go so fast, and are mistrustful of our large, angry branch-fingers. My family always had cats, so birds stayed safely away, but every year we’d hang big suet chunks on the pines and I’d watch, cardinals, bluejays and orioles, and ever-present sparrows.
The sparrows are my favorite, still. “Spare rows”, sparse like winter in Pennsylvania, with the concrete back porch and small iron rail, where the homeless cats would collect, wild things swirling around our meager dinner scraps. Far above and toward the garage, the sparrows would convene noisily over what we gave them, whenever we could. Even in the dead of winter, winter-dead, we would have a cacophony of feeding.
“Halsted? There’s a dead bird upstairs.” One of the student workers looked shy, frowning.
“A … what?” It wasn’t making sense. This is a library. Why is there a– o. The windows.
“A dead bird. It flew into the window. It just happened. A patron told me. What do we do?”
What do we do. We bury it.
Retrieving it was difficult. It landed backwards on the second-floor balcony, which originally I thought I could reach using a metal rod (with no prehensile end, you see I am not good at this) poked through one of our low, forward-folding windows. No. And the alarmed door that led out to the balcony was notorious for resetting itself even when it was unset. I didn’t want to risk the noise.
Outside with me, then, and around the back, to an area long unused and bolted down called “the rose garden” even though no roses grow in it. It is an outdoor area surrounded by a four-foot, ivy-encrusted wall. Inside it is a staircase that leads up to the balcony. A way up. I just had to get in there.
I set the box and paper towels on the ledge carefully and hoisted myself up. It was much easier to do than I thought it would be, since I’m no great climber. (When other kids were climbing things, leaping over chasms in the park, I was busily reading Sherlock Holmes in hopes of becoming a world-famous detective.) I straddled the wall and jumped down – much further than I expected, this side was lower than the outside. A few short steps and I was to the stairs, at once dreading and wondering about the part that came next.
What came next: the bird was dead. I had half-hoped by the time I reached the balcony it would have woken up, merely stunned, and flown away. I wanted that to be true; I wouldn’t even be angry that I spent all this time climbing over and up things to get here. But it wasn’t. The little creature’s eyes were still open, glassy brown-black, and its feet were curled up like my cat’s paws when she is napping next to me.
I reached out. My mother’s voice echoed in my head: “Never touch a bird. They carry all sorts of diseases and bugs.” I touched it. It was soft, and it was still warm.
Please, jump up right now and fly away. I won’t even be mad if you peck my fingers.
Cradling it in my fingers, I lifted the handful of feathers and air-filled bones and placed it in the box. I could think of nothing else to do except retrace my steps downstairs and outside the rose garden, and without thinking I ended up behind the library, under the large redwood there.
This is it. I’m not throwing you in the trash so I hope you like redwoods.
I didn’t have anything to say. What is there ever to say? Death makes sense, is the logical conclusion, and yet has no further explanation. Birds fly into windows all the time, and maybe they are buried by sentimental library workers and maybe they’re just left to the wind and sun. When have I ever thought about this before? When will I think about it again?
Honestly, I know I’ll forget it someday. But for a few moments, knelt in the dirt and mulch, I thought I understood it all, why we do this, and why we are afraid of it ending. Up until I covered the bird with the ground I promised myself it might shake its tiny head free of dust and fly away. Any second … any … second. It’s that hope that remains, despite all obvious negation. Get up, be alive, don’t let it be over. I’m not done yet.